After all the other novels, short stories and non-fiction pieces, I’ve finally gotten to the end of my Dostoevsky reading project (which started in June 2010 I believe). All that’s left now is the longest and most critically acclaimed Dostoevsky novel of them all – The Brothers Karamazov.I’m not sure how many people read this blog out there, but if there are any, I’m going to be reading it in sections, so read along with me if you want. The Frank biography (around which this project is centered) devotes chapters to individual sections of The Brothers Karamazov (TBK). I’m going to be reading and then writing about each of those sections, which means, if you want, you can read along and potentially comment on what I have to say, or on what Frank has to say (the relevant volume is Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881, chapters 31-38), or just on the Dostoevsky original (I’m using the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, which is widely available). If you’ve read the book before, you could join the discussion just about an individual section, so even if you don’t keep up it’s no big deal. I’ll try to get through this one in the next 3 weeks.
The first subdivision of Frank’s commentary is Books 1-2 (subtitled “A Nice Little Family” and “An Inappropriate Gathering”, respectively). That’s about 88 pages, so it should take me a few days, being the slow reader than I am.
Before I start talking about the book, though, I wanted to highlight some words from Pevear’s introduction (the first ones, as it turns out): “The Brothers Karamazov is a joyful book. Readers who know what it is ‘about’ may find this an intolerably whimsical statement.” I’m going to try to honor this judgment in my reading. Much of my problem with Frank’s thoughts about all of D’s earlier work has been that he is too concerned with “what it is ‘about'” to capture the joy of actually reading it. He’s interested in grafting real-world names of 19th century intellectuals onto characters, and talking about them, and that’s interesting as far as it goes. But D’s novels are anything but thinly veiled polemics or position papers. I’m not always sure Frank knows that. There is plenty of intellectual heft to them, of course, but then there is joy too.
This is a problem I’ve had in reading some of history’s greatest novels. Everyone always wants to talk about what they’re “about.” We feel the need to treat them seriously, as great tomes beyond the reach of human reaction. But the reason most of them have come down to us is because humans enjoyed reading them. Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, and even D’s own Demons were all immensely complex and difficult works for me to read, but I found great joy in all of them (even if, in the case of both Ulysses and Demons, I didn’t really find that the first time though).
Now I don’t mean joy in some trivial way, like “momentary happiness” or “entertainment value.” I mean it in a way that fuses intellectual and emotional experience, and creates a sense of all-around fulfillment. I have read TBK before, though I don’t remember that much about it. I really only remember a handful of scenes. There is a murder, one of the main characters’ spending huge sums of money on a “spree”, a trial, a scene at a monk’s cottage, a scene in a tavern that I first read in college in a political theory class, published a standalone volume entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” I remember there are three brothers (Dmitry, Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov). I remember that their father (whose name I don’t recall) wasn’t a very good father, in sort of a Royal-Tenenbaum way (the character in the movie, not the movie itself). That’s about all I remember. I also read it over a long stretch of time while doing other things like attending debate tournaments. Hopefully this reading, as undistracted as it will be, will produce a greater sense of the whole for me, and therefore greater joy.
Like I said, feel free to join in. I’ll write about Books 1-2 in a few days, so get reading if you want.